Graduation Rates Up for Spec. Ed. Students, Report Says

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More special education students are graduating from high school, and fewer are dropping out than ever before, according to the Department of Education's annual report to Congress on the progress of students with disabilities.

Those positive trends are highlighted in the department's 23rd annual report on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, commonly known as the IDEA. The report, released this month, comes just as lawmakers are gearing up to reauthorize the landmark 1975 law that guarantees students with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education.

The dropout rate among students with disabilities reached a record low of 28.9 percent in 1998-99, down from 34.5 percent in 1993-94, the report says. Meanwhile, 57.4 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high school in 1998-99 with a standard diploma rather than a certificate of attendance. That figure was up from 51.9 percent five years earlier.

Department officials have reported incremental rises in graduation rates, and decreases in dropout percentages, each year. But despite those improvements, officials said there was still much to do to improve education for the nation's 6 million special education students.

"Progress continues to be made, but at a time when barely half of students with disabilities are graduating on time from high school, we still have a long way to go," Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a statement accompanying the report's May 10 release.

'Strategies Are Working'

Among other findings, the report shows that graduation and dropout rates vary by disability.

Students with visual impairments received diplomas at the highest rate, 75.1 percent; students with mental retardation graduated at the lowest rate, 41.7 percent.

The highest dropout rates occurred among students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Half the students in that disability category quit school in 1998-99. The dropout rate was lowest among students with autism, 9.5 percent. Some students cannot meet graduation standards, including passing tests at grade level, because of their disabilities. But they do not drop out of school. These students receive a certificate of attendance, or other alternate diplomas.

Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, said the report shows that special education is effective.

"The reduced dropout rates and rise in graduation rates reflect that teaching strategies are working," said Ms. Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Arlington, Va.-based national advocacy group for students with disabilities.

In addition, the report points out that inclusion of students with disabilities in regular classrooms continues to rise. During the 1984-85 school year, only one-quarter of the students ages 6 to 21 with disabilities spent more than 80 percent of the school day in regular classes. By 1998-99, that figure had jumped to a record-high 47.4 percent.

The report shows that among the different categories of disabilities, "specific learning disabilities," such as dyslexia, continued to be the most prevalent, representing half the students covered under the IDEA.

Along with the gains found in the report are signs that special education continues to be a difficult issue for policymakers.

For instance, the participation rate of students with disabilities in state assessments varies from 33 percent to 97 percent, according to the report. That wide range of participation exists even though the 1997 amendments to the IDEA contained a provision that said states must provide alternative assessments for those students who need them. For some students, they can take the same test, but with accommodations.

Racial Disparities Persist

As past studies have found, the new Education Department report cites the overrepresentation of black students in special education, relative to their proportion of enrollment. That is especially true in certain categories, such as those that include students with mental retardation or developmental delays.

"As the public becomes more aware of this [racial] issue, there will be increased demand for solutions," Ms. Van Kuren predicted. "We need to develop effective strategies to address this situation."

Vol. 21, Issue 37, Page 24

Published in Print: May 22, 2002, as Graduation Rates Up for Spec. Ed. Students, Report Says
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